Oliver knows how to play to the crowd.
John Oliver is coming back to Madison at a time when he couldn't be hotter.
Last year, he subbed for Jon Stewart as guest host of The Daily Show. Many comedians would have outright bombed in that job, particularly considering how much the show has been molded to fit Stewart's personality, but Oliver brought his own edge and proved he was ready for a talk show of his own.
Oliver followed this with multiple appearances on the fifth season of NBC's Community. Though he has appeared on the sitcom since its pilot, the newest episodes gave Oliver his own character arcs. He had a chance to express regret and show growth -- the sarcastic stand-up could actually act.
But next came Oliver's crowning achievement: the stellar first season of HBO's Last Week Tonight. The exquisitely researched monologues became required discussion on social media every Monday morning.
Producing only one show a week allowed Oliver and his writers (many of them Daily Show alumni) enough time to do in-depth satirical exploration. The topics selected weren't political fish-in-a-barrel topics -- they ranged from net neutrality to America's broken prison system to a dissection of how state lotteries prey upon the poor. Oliver and his team handled concepts that serious journalists struggle to conceptualize while also managing to tell jokes.
With his incredible run of success, Oliver is hitting the road again. He has done stand-up for a long time, but his additional fame brings new crowds, many of whom have never seen his stand-up. Oliver is performing at the Orpheum Theater on Sunday, Dec. 7; the 8 p.m. show is sold out, so he's added as a second at 10:30 p.m.
So, for those who have only seen Oliver on a fake news show, what is his stand-up like?
For starters, the strong satirical tone carries over from his television work. His 2012 stand-up tour, which made a stop at the Barrymore Theatre, was structured as an intervention for America. Oliver relishes his role as cultural critic; it isn't just something he plays up for the camera.
While the United States is his most frequent target, he also goes after other nations including his home country of Great Britain. In a segment of his stand-up showcase series, John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show, he cheerfully attacked Australia for being "the most comfortably racist country."
An element of Oliver's live show that may surprise television viewers is how loose he is on stage. A polished, perfectly timed monologue works great on television because the production staff controls the timing -- but at a live show, the audience is in control. Oliver knows how to play to the crowd by ditching bits that aren't going well and adding extra asides to successful jokes.
There are funny people from television who decide to do a tour to cash in on their fame, but their lack of stand-up experience often shows. Oliver is a stand-up who happened to make it on television, and Madison audiences will get a better performance because of it.
[Editor's note: This article is updated to note John Oliver is performing two sets in Madison on Sunday, Dec. 7.]